The play's fifteen scenes present a sequence of steps--some large, some small--that lead to profound personal changes for its two characters, Rita and Frank.
Rita, a working-class young woman in a large, unnamed northern English city, has decided to change her life by becoming educated. She enrolls in a literature course offered by the Open University, and is assigned to Frank, a middle-aged professor and lapsed poet, as her tutor.
(The Open University was founded in 1969--about ten years before this play was written--as a program for providing university-level education for non-traditional students: "degrees for dishwashers," as Rita says. With no formal requirements for admission, the Open University declares that "as long as you are over 18 and want to study, we will accept you." It currently enrolls some 125 thousand students, most between the ages of 25 and 45, with a median age in the mid-30s. Rita, at age 26, is thus a typical Open University student.)
As was the playwright, Rita is a ladies' hairdresser who has become deeply dissatisfied with the limited horizons of her life. She wants, as she tells Frank, to learn "everything" as a way of achieving self-liberation. She is eager and enthusiastic, street-wise but intellectually naive, filled with a longing to learn and grow. So determined is she to alter her life that she has changed her name, from the plain-sounding "Susan" that appears on her registration papers, to the more exotic "Rita," which she adopts in honor of the author of the sexually explicit novel, Rubyfruit Jungle.
Frank, on the other hand, is somewhat cynical about his life and profession. He knows, if not "everything," at least a great deal, but he doesn't value it. He was once a poet, but he now feels that his work was without merit. Divorced from his first wife, living with an ex-student, he drinks his way through the day, a bottle of whiskey hidden behind the Dickens on his bookshelf.
In the opening scene, these two vastly different characters encounter one another for the first time, each finding something deeply appealing about the other. For Frank, Rita is "the first breath of air" to have entered his stale life in years. For Rita, Frank is "a crazy mad piss artist who wants to throw his students through the window"--the kind of antic figure she never expected to find behind the solemn gates of a university. And so they begin their joint adventure, he the mentor, she the eager student, both heading into unknown territory.
The immediate goal of that journey is the examination Rita must pass to qualify for a degree. During the next several scenes, Frank and Rita work their way through a succession of distinguished, and required, authors--E.M. Forster, Ibsen, Chekhov--each presenting an obstacle and a discovery to the knowledge-hungry young woman. Forster she initially dismisses as "crap;" Ibsen's great play, Peer Gynt, she treats in a single, dismissive sentence of five words.
But as she continues to study, she comes to understand the relevance of literature to life, and she begins to see the intricate web of cause and effect that has shaped her experience. In other words, she learns what Forster means by saying "only connect." And she also learns to see in Peer Gynt's restless wanderings an image of her own quest for self-discovery.
Eventually she begins going to the theater on her own, making the intoxicating discovery of Shakespeare's power in a production of Macbeth. Her essays improve, her grasp of books and ideas grows stronger, and she begins making palpable progress toward her goals.
But there is a serious obstacle to her progress--her husband, Denny, who desperately wants his wife not to change. We encounter Denny only through the words of Rita, who makes it clear that he represents the dead weight, the spiritual inertia, of the working-class world she is struggling to leave behind. At one point, Denny burns all her books and essays in an attempt to stifle Rita's educational aspirations. But she perseveres.
Then, in the final scene of the first act, she arrives in Frank's office to tell him that Denny has ordered her out of the house, claiming she has "betrayed" him, though not with another man. Rather her betrayal lies in her love of education, and her determination to become a new woman, no longer the docile, resigned girl he married.
This domestic upheaval is a turning-point in Rita's life, a boundary marker between her old existence and the new world she is seeking to enter. And we see the intensity of her determination to cross that boundary when she insists, in spite of the upheavals in her private life, in discussing with Frank her essay on Macbeth. Nothing will stop her, not dispossession from her home, not rejection by her husband, not even the inherent difficulty of thinking and writing well. The act ends with her insisting that she and Frank go on with the work of criticizing her essay regardless of her domestic problems or her academic shortcomings:
If I do somethin' that's crap, I don't want pity, you just tell me, that's crap. (She picks up the essay.) Here, it's crap. (She rips it up.) Right. So we dump that in the bin, (She does so.) an' we start again.
Meanwhile, Frank has been growing ever fonder of Rita, seeing in her qualities of vitality and joyousness that have long been absent from his life. She has become his most important student, presenting him with the kinds of challenge and fulfillment that his work in the regular university program doesn't provide. In fact his relationship with Rita closely resembles the myth on which G.B. Shaw based his play, Pygmalion, which later became the musical-comedy, My Fair Lady. Like Professor Higgins, Frank is both transforming his student and falling in love with her. And also like Higgins, Frank discovers that his "creation" develops a mind of her own, making her no longer utterly dependent on her teacher.
This process is well-advanced by the beginning of the second act. Several months have elapsed, including summer vacation, during which Rita, newly independent, lived in London and attended school in the city. Back now to start the fall semester, she is full of newly-acquired knowledge and self-confidence. She requests that they study a "dead good poet," and when Frank suggests Blake, she announces that she has already read his work in summer school. Frank is taken aback by this piece of information, and also by Rita's account of the lively social life she led in the capital. He sees at once that she has begun to move beyond him, and when she urges him to stop drinking, his response is revealing:
But Rita--if I repent and reform, what do I do when your influence is no longer here? What do I do when, in appalling sobriety, I watch you walk away and disappear, my influence gone for ever?
The second act traces the process foreseen here by Frank. Its steps are clearly marked: first Rita completes an essay that Frank ranks with the work of regular university students; then she begins to express ideas about poetry that contradict his; and eventually she begins arriving late to class, or skipping it altogether.
The crisis in their relationship begins when, late for another class, Rita tells Frank that "it might be worth comin' here" if he were to stop drinking and to focus on important academic questions rather than on the details of her newly independent life. Stung by her rebelliousness, Frank gives her an unprecedented assignment: she is to present "a critical assessment of a lesser known English poet. Me." Now, instead of Frank judging Rita's work, she will be judging his--a decisive reversal in their situation.
When Rita arrives the following week full of enthusiasm for his poetry, Frank bitterly repudiates her praise, accusing her of admiring his work for all the wrong reasons. He condemns his verse as a "clever pyrotechnical pile of self-conscious allusion," and as a "worthless, talentless" waste of paper. In becoming educated, Rita has learned only to admire what is mannered and artificial, academic in the worst sense, and has lost the robust insight and spontaneous literary feeling she brought to his tutorials:
Found a culture, have you Rita? Found a better song to sing have you? No--you've found a different song, that's all--and on your lips it's shrill and hollow and tuneless.
Rita's rejoinder is equally sharp. She accuses Frank of squandering his talent in self-pity and drink, and confronts him with what she believes is the true sore point in their relationship:
What's up, Frank, don't y'like me now that the little girl's grown up, now that y' can no longer bounce me on daddy's knee an' watch me stare back in wide-eyed wonder at everything he has to say? I'm educated, I've got what you have an' y' don't like it . . . .
When Frank, summoning her back to her former self, calls her, "Rita, Rita," she replies, "Rita? Nobody calls me Rita but you. I dropped that pretentious crap as soon as I saw it for what it was."
Thus Frank no longer even knows her name. Their former closeness seems to have ended completely, as "Rita" goes through Frank's door, apparently for the last time.
This is the emotional climax of the play, the point toward which the action has been leading since the beginning: a moment of decisive reversal in roles between student and teacher. However this is not the end of the play. There remains a coda of two scenes during which we learn that the relationship between these two sharply contrasting characters is far from over.
In the next-to-last scene, we see Frank leaving a telephone message for Rita telling her she has passed the crucial examination. Then, in the play's final moments, Rita returns to tell Frank that he has been a good teacher. She reveals that she wavered for a moment between writing the exam and abandoning it, but that thanks to his influence she forged ahead:
I had a choice. I chose, me. Because of what you’d given me I had a choice. I wanted to come back an' tell y' that. That y' a good teacher.
Frank, however, seems too distracted to focus on her message. Instead, he is preoccupied with his own immediate future. Having committed some unspecified drunken indiscretion at the university, he has been ordered to take a two-year leave of absence in Australia. Now he asks Rita to go with him, finally making clear that he is in love with her.
Her response, as he notes, is "evasive". Without either accepting his offer or turning it down, she tells him she might spend Christmas with her mother or go to France with her new-found friends. "I'll make a decision, I'll choose. I dunno." New possibilities are opening in front of her, and Frank has given her the gift of choice. The act ends with her finally giving something tangible to Frank: a haircut. The play comes full circle as Rita returns for a moment to her origins before setting off on the adventure of her educated life.
The action of the play takes place in a single location, Frank's office at the University. This room is important because it is home ground to Frank, but a strange and challenging environment to Rita. "How d' y' make a room like this?" she asks in the second scene, showing her longing to move into a world of sophisticated values expressed in Frank's unforced good taste
I'm gonna have a room like this one day. There's nothing phoney about it. Everything's in its right place. It's a mess. But it's a perfect mess.
Initially Rita wanders restlessly and inquiringly around the office, noticing pictures on the walls, objects on the shelves, the view through the big window. In the early scenes it takes her several minutes of poking around the room each time she visits Frank to accustom herself to being in such an alien and alluring world.
As the play proceeds, however, the room becomes less strange and inviting to her, until toward the end she begins to skip her sessions with Frank, having begun to find her own place in the world. Her relationship with the setting is thus a barometer of her own development as a character.
The professor's office is itself a microcosm of--and a gateway to--the larger world Rita is seeking to enter: the university, with its broad lawns, interesting students, and intellectual riches.
Both characters are quite articulate and perceptive about themselves. Early on Rita says,
I've been realizin' for ages that I was, y'know, slightly out of step. I'm twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it . . . . But . . . . see, I don't wanna baby yet. See, I wanna discover meself first. Do you understand that.
The rest of the play is the realization of that goal as Rita moves ever further away from the conventional expectations of her family and her class, and pursues the paradigmatic modern quest of "self discovery." She is much like Shirley Valentine, the heroine of another of Willy Russell’s plays, with a crucial exception: she is only 26 while Shirley is 42. Thus there is less of a sense of last-chance desperation about Rita. But like Shirley, she is an energetic, outspoken, funny, irreverent, and ultimately serious person searching for a life equal to her gifts.
Frank has everything Rita longs for minus her enthusiasm for life. His education has left him empty: "Everything I know--and you must listen to this--is that I know absolutely nothing." Likewise, as we have seen, he feels his poetry is worthless. In his own eyes, Frank is the teacher who has nothing to teach and the poet who has fallen silent. And yet Rita learns from him.
In the end, true to their characters, Rita has ridden her vitality into a promising new beginning, while Frank's disillusionment has him on the threshold of exile. The play leaves us wondering whether Frank will be reborn in Australia--in fact, whether such rebirth will be possible without Rita.
Class. The importance of class differences is far more openly recognized in England than in the United States, where the vast majority of the population sees itself as middle-class. In England, by contrast, people are more likely to sort themselves and others into a wider spectrum of class categories, from the working-class to the aristocracy. This class-consciousness has often been identified as an unhealthy feature of English life, a way of looking at the world that multiplies the barriers between people, leading to personal conflict and inefficiency in political and economic affairs.
In Educating Rita, the awareness of class status as an obstacle to happiness is acute. For Rita, membership in the working class is a stifling, soul-destroying experience. We see this at a crucial moment near the end of the first act. Frank has invited Rita and her husband to his house for dinner. Denny refuses, but Rita gets as far as Frank's door before turning away, paralyzed by a sense of inferiority:
when I saw those people you were with I couldn't come in. I would have seized up. Because I'm a freak. I can't talk to the people I live with any more. An' I can't talk to the likes of them [at your house], because I can't learn the language. I'm a half-caste. I went back to the pub. . . .
"Half-caste" is a telling term for Rita to apply to herself. It means someone who is caught between two classes, belonging fully to neither. Thus, she no longer belongs to the working class she is trying to escape, or to the educated class which she aspires to join. It may be said that the central action of the play is Rita's movement from membership in the working-class, to half-caste status, to final success as she enters the educated class with the passing of her exam.
It is also significant that Rita says she can't find the "language" to talk to the other guests at Frank's house. In one sense, she means that she won't be able to muster the information to hold up her end of the conversation. But she is also touching on another important aspect of class-distinction in England: differences in speech. Rita's is the colloquial, northern-accented language of the working class. In England people are highly attuned to discriminating among accents, and placing people socially according to the way they speak. Purely through speech, Rita and Frank are constantly identifying themselves as belonging to different classes. This is a drama of contrasting accents as much as it is of contrasting personalities.
Unlike Rita, Frank is secure in his class status, but cynical and bored. This class-based anomie leads him to drink and despair, to ruination in his private life and near disaster in his career. It is only the revivifying proletarian energy of Rita that awakens him to the pleasures of literature and teaching.
This contrast between a decadent member of the establishment and a charismatic child of the lower orders is a classic theme in English literature, from the time of Dickens through the twentieth century. We can find it in Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, John Osborne, and many other writers.
Choice. From Ibsen to Caryl Churchill, modern drama has been interested in the struggle of young women to determine their own destinies. Pursuing one's freedom to choose a mode of life, a system of moral commitments, a career, is a pattern of action that emerges repeatedly in plays like A Doll's House, Mrs. Warren's Profession, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Cloud 9. Educating Rita belongs to this tradition. It is for giving her the power to choose her future that Rita thanks Frank, rather than for any specific insights into literature.
Education. The vehicle for Rita's transformation is education--not in some metaphorical sense, but literally, through reading, writing essays, and discussing books with a teacher. Russell is clear in his conviction that this tangible, traditional process is genuinely liberating in its power. Through her reading and thinking about Forster, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Blake, and all the other imposing authors in her curriculum, Rita—as the saying has it--stands on the shoulders of giants, and is enabled to see further into life's possibilities than she ever could from the vantage point of her lower-class culture. Indeed, unlike many of the intellectuals whose world she is trying to join, Rita has no illusions about the culture of the proletariat: "we've got no culture" she tells Frank, who responds reflexively, "Of course you have."
What? Do you mean like that working-class culture thing? . . . Yeh. I've read about that. I've never seen it though. . . . I just see everyone pissed, or on the valium, tryin' to get from one day to the next. . . . They'll tell y' they've got culture as they sit there drinkin' their keg beer out of plastic glasses.
By the time the play ends, Rita has been educated into a new selfhood--she has become a person who can argue with regular university students about D.H. Lawrence, who can ask intelligent questions about Chekhov in a room full of intellectuals, and who can stand up to her teacher and assert her independence of thought.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Do you think formal education can really have such a profound effect on a person's life? Have you had any similar experiences?
2. Why does Rita want to acquire an education?
3. Why does Frank drink so much?
4. Why does Rita like Frank, despite his telling her he is a bad teacher?
5. Why does Frank like Rita?
6. Why does Rita stop attending Frank's tutorials?
7. Will Rita join Frank in Australia?
8. Why does Rita offer to cut Frank's hair at the end of the play? What does this signify?
9. Can you think of institutions in this country like the Open University?
10. Do you agree with Rita that working-class life lacks cultural fulfillment?